Wright, like his Bay Area and Boston predecessors, is delighted to announce the ways in which Buddhism intersects with our own recent ideas. His new version of an American Buddhism is not only self-consciously secularized but aggressively “scientized.” He believes that Buddhist doctrine and practice anticipate and affirm the “modular” view of the mind favored by much contemporary cognitive science. Instead of there being a single, consistent Cartesian self that monitors the world and makes decisions, we live in a kind of nineties-era Liberia of the mind, populated by warring independent armies implanted by evolution, representing themselves as a unified nation but unable to reconcile their differences, and, as one after another wins a brief battle for the capital, providing only the temporary illusion of control and decision. By accepting that the fixed self is an illusion imprinted by experience and reinforced by appetite, meditation parachutes in a kind of peacekeeping mission that, if it cannot demobilize the armies, lets us see their nature and temporarily disarms their still juvenile soldiers.
Meditation, in Wright’s view, is not a metaphysical route toward a higher plane. It is a cognitive probe for self-exploration that underlines what contemporary psychology already knows to be true about the mind.
Meditation shows us how anything can be emptied of the story we tell about it: he tells us about an enlightened man who tastes wine without the contextual tales about vintage, varietal, region. It tastes . . . less emotional. “All the states of equanimity come through the realization that things aren’t what we thought they were,” Wright quotes a guru as saying. What Wright calls “the perception of emptiness” dampens the affect, but it also settles the mind. If it isn’t there, you don’t overreact to it.
Simply to sit and breathe for twenty-five minutes, if only to hear cars and buses go by on a city avenue—listening to the world rather than to the frantic non sequiturs of one’s “monkey mind,” fragmented thoughts and querulous moods racing each other around—can intimate the possibility of a quiet grace in the midst of noise.
A faith practice with an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a horror; a faith practice without an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a hobby. The dwindling down of Buddhism into another life-style choice will doubtless irritate many, and Wright will likely be sneered at for reducing Buddhism to another bourgeois amenity, like yoga or green juice...Yet what Wright is doing seems an honorable, even a sublime, achievement. Basically, he says that meditation has made him somewhat less irritable. Being somewhat less irritable is not the kind of achievement that people usually look to religion for, but it may be as good an achievement as we ought to expect. (If Donald Trump became somewhat less irritable, the world would be a less dangerous place.)